José Luis Cruz, the first Latino to be named president of the 120-year-old Northern Arizona University, is stepping into the role with a goal to make the institution a regional economic “power house” and to expand opportunities for students, particularly those from underserved populations.
Collaborating with the business community is part of his vision, said Cruz, who was named NAU’s 17th president earlier this year with a unanimous vote by the Arizona Board of Regents.
“I’m a big proponent of public private partnerships in the sense of driving for solutions, driving the fortunes of public and private sectors,” Cruz said.
But first, he’s meeting with groups and community leaders to just “listen.”
“I pledged to hit the ground learning. I’m prioritizing the first six months around conversations about collaboration and shared governance and how we can best allocate our resources to advance the aspirations of the campus community,” he said.
Public health first
Cruz, who officially starts the job June 14, spoke to Chamber Business News about his priorities for moving the university forward post pandemic.
Public health comes first, Cruz said. His first priority is to make sure all operations are ready to safely return to on-campus instruction in the fall.
A university for the new economy
Looking ahead, he wants to establish NAU “as the third ‘power house’ right alongside Arizona State University and the University of Arizona.”
“I think we can do that because of our scale and our excellent research enterprises that matter not only to Arizona, but more broadly to the nation and the world around issues like sustainability and climate change, for example.”
Cruz’ goals are right in line with the state universities’ New Economy Initiative to enhance Arizona’s global competitiveness and raise the per capita income of its residents.
Collaboration with business
To meet that end, Cruz said he wants to work with the business community to identify what’s working and accelerate progress in those areas such as the university’s strong healthcare programs. He also wants to identify areas for improvement. In turn, he will recruit businesses to mentor and hire students.
“We want more internships, we want better placements for our graduates, and we want to have a part in sustaining the professional development of those already in the field,” Cruz said.
Equity, inclusion, diversity an overriding theme
Cruz, a nationally recognized advocate for equity and inclusion to boost social mobility, said he will focus on policies and practices to expand opportunities for all students, including Latinos and Native Americans from the nearby Navajo and Hopi nations.
Cruz, who grew up in Puerto Rico, knows firsthand how education can open up the world to a better life. The oldest of four children in a household of limited means, his parents always emphasized the importance of getting a college degree.
He took it to heart, graduating from high school early and entering college at 16 to study electrical engineering. He also became a teenage father who went on to have five children with his wife, Rima.
His first position in academia was as a faculty member and researcher in engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez. From there, he catapulted into a number of leadership roles.
Long career of academic leadership
Most recently, Cruz comes to Arizona from New York City where he was the executive vice chancellor and university provost for the 25-campus City University of New York.
Prior to that he was president of one of the university’s colleges, Lehman College, the only four-year institution in the system. During his tenure, he was credited with enhancing Lehman’s reputation as an engine for social mobility.
Previously, Cruz served as provost of California State University, Fullerton and is the former chief of student affairs officer for the University of Puerto Rico system.
He also served as a vice president for the Education Trust in Washington, D.C., a national nonprofit that works to close opportunity gaps that disproportionately affect students of color and students from low-income families.
Community and “common ground”
Asked about how he might deal with tensions within Flagstaff that have flared in recent years as the university’s enrollment and infrastructure have grown, Cruz said he is committed to creating solutions.
“I’ve been in Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., California and New York City, so I’m very familiar with the tensions and very comfortable in trying to find common ground.
“What I find interesting about Northern Arizona University is that the campus community is very much the Flagstaff community and vice versa. I think that is a plus. I hope we can leverage that.”
Why the university in the pines
Cruz is only the second Hispanic to serve as president in Arizona’s university system. Manuel Pacheco was first at the University of Arizona in the 1990s. Cruz is replacing NAU President Rita Cheng, who announced last year she was retiring after six years on the job.
There were many things that attracted Cruz to Arizona, including the fact that he and his wife visited Northern Arizona when they were a new young couple.
Now, they’re closing on their new home in Flagstaff, where they will be living with their last remaining child at home.
“Flagstaff is very beautiful. My wife and I first traveled here together when we were just getting started as a couple. We visited the Grand Canyon and Sedona, and the pictures we took have accompanied us for 15 years in all the places we have served.
“It’s really a dream come true to be able to call Northern Arizona our home.”
To view a video interview of Cruz by Garrick Taylor, interim president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, visit here.